Armed tribesmen deployed on the streets take control of the city of Ramadi yesterday.
FALLUJAH: Iraq has lost Fallujah to Al-Qaeda-linked fighters, a senior security official said yesterday, putting militants back in control of the city in Anbar province where American forces repeatedly battled insurgents.
And fighting in Anbar killed 65 people yesterday — eight soldiers, two government-allied tribesmen and 55 militants from Al-Qaeda-linked group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), security officials said.
Parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, west of Baghdad, had already been held by militants for days, harkening back to the years after the 2003 US-led invasion when both cities were insurgent strongholds.
Fighting erupted in the Ramadi area on Monday, when security forces broke up an anti-government protest camp set up after demonstrations erupted in late 2012 against what Sunni Arabs say is the marginalisation and targeting of their community.
The violence then spread to Fallujah, and a subsequent withdrawal of security forces from areas of both cities cleared the way for militants to move in.
“Fallujah is under the control of ISIL,” a senior security official in Anbar said, while the city’s outskirts were in the hands of local police. Witnesses inside Fallujah also said ISIL seemed to be in control, with no security forces or Sahwa anti-Al-Qaeda militiamen visible on the streets.
Meanwhile, Iraqi ground forces commander Staff General Ali Ghaidan Majeed said security forces killed 25 ISIL fighters in Albufaraj, near Ramadi, and 30 in Garma, close to Fallujah.
Eight soldiers and at least two government-allied tribesmen were also killed in fighting in the Ramadi and Fallujah areas, security officials said. Majeed said there are three groups involved in the fighting: security forces and allied tribes; ISIL; and forces of the anti-government “Military Council of the Tribes”.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki vowed yesterday to eliminate militant groups in Anbar.
“We will not back down until we end all terrorist groups and save our people in Anbar,” Maliki was quoted as saying by Iraqiya state television.
On Friday alone, more than 100 people were killed in Ramadi and Fallujah, in the country’s deadliest single day in years. Hundreds of gunmen, some bearing the black flags often flown by jihadists, had gathered at outdoor prayers in central Fallujah on Friday, where one militant announced that “Fallujah is an Islamic state,” a witness said.
The city was the target of two major assaults after the 2003 US-led invasion, in which American forces saw some of their heaviest fighting since the Vietnam War. American troops fought for years, aided by Sunni tribesmen in the Sahwa militia forces from late 2006, to wrest control of Anbar from militants.
The US forces suffered almost one-third of their total Iraq fatalities in Anbar, according to independent website icasualties.org.
But two years after US forces withdrew from the country, the power of militants in the province is again rising. ISIL is the latest incarnation of an Al-Qaeda affiliate that lost ground from 2006, as Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents joined US troops against jihadists in a process that began in Anbar and came to be known as the “Awakening”.
But the group has made a striking comeback following the US withdrawal and the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011.
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said its “strength and territorial control and influence has been expanding in Anbar for some time,” although mainly in rural desert areas. The Ramadi protest camp operation pushed Sunni tribes into conflict with the government, and ISIL “has ridden this wave of popular Sunni anger,” Lister said.
Maliki had long sought the closure of the protest camp, dubbing it a “headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda”. But its removal has caused a sharp decline in the security situation.
And while the closure has removed a physical sign of Sunni Arab grievances, the perceived injustices that underpinned the protest have not been addressed. Violence in Iraq last year reached a level not seen since 2008, when it was just emerging from a brutal period of sectarian killings.
Sunni anger helped fuel the surge in unrest, boosting recruitment for militant groups and decreasing cooperation with security forces, while the civil war in Syria also played a role, experts say.